Historical Fencing

The Nature of Eastern Roman Martial Arts

Within the HEMA community, at various lengths explanations have been given about the absence of treatises to do with combat, more specific forms of Martial Arts, in the Roman World. For a vast Empire and a culture which endured for nearly 2000 years, there is little information in the way of showing how warriors individually fought. This is not to imply that an absence of evidence is an evidence of absence. We have a wide range of Strategic Treatises from the Imperial Period up to the Komenian Period in the 11th Century; these often highlight the changing circumstances the Empire experienced and the means in which it dealt with those circumstances militarily. However, in many ways this illustrates a premise that is taken for granted when it comes to the matters of the Romans, mainly two presuppositions about combat; firstly, the explanation that the Empire relied heavily on strategic combat for coherent units then any sophisticated techniques and secondly, that the Empire relied heavily on mercenaries and therefore adapted to circumstances. These are largely something which will be revised in conjunction with the evidence that we have. The purpose of this article will be to assess the evidence that we have in showing that though there is an absence of treatises on Roman Martial Arts,  individual forms of combat were very much evident in the Roman world. Section 1, Issues and Presumptions of Material, will illustrate the inconsistencies of how people have assumed Roman Martial Arts took place and how Roman sources, the ones which do survive, need to be cautiously interpreted. Section 2, The Nature of Duelling in the Eastern Roman World, will show thow dueling did take a role however this was confined to a social and military role. Finally, Section 3, Roman Treatises, will attempt to explain the absence of such material and how it may have become absent, in comparison with Western Europe in the Medieval Period.

Issues and presumptions of material and wider context

It is often assumed that in the world the Eastern Romans (coined “Byzantines” by later Western Europeans) inhabited, there was a lack of context to the writing of any information when it came of combat. In a sense, this is correct both on a logistical and simply and socio-economic basis. For the majority of the Empire’s existence, there was a reliance on professional manpower, being:

  • Professional, fully-paid, armies under Justinian.
  • The period from the success of the Arab Invasions to Nikephoros I where the large standing armies exist on paper, but in reality are split between a fully-paid professional corps of cavalrymen and semi-professional soldiers who, in reality are farmers who only get paid on campaign.
  • The period onwards from Nikephoros I who creates Themes which are self-sufficient military districts that supply and equip their own soliders. This also coincides with the earlier creation, under Constantine IV, of the Tagmatas: Professional standing units stationed permanently in the capital.
  • The increasing prevalence of the Tagmatas as permanent standing armies from the mid-800’s until the Battle of Manzikert in 1071.
  • A Complete revamp, by Emperor komnenos, of the Byzantine Army to include Tagmatas, with conscription as well, and some semblance of Theme system. This also survives after the sacking of Constantinople in 1204 and the eventual re-establishment of the Empire by the Empire of Nicaea.
  • The helpless over-reliance of mercenaries, and civilian militias, in the 14th and 15th Century until of the Fall of Constantinople in 1456.

The periods illustrate an immensely diverse set of periods too broad to cover in this article, however for the purpose of this article these are simply indications. With these periods in mind, the periods, even in the last one, show a constant lineage of professional institutions which trained officers and soldiers. Even in times of desperation, the lineage still continued. Emperor Alexios, when summoning able-bodied men to the capital after the civils war, is said to have only summoned 500 men. Nevertheless, he personally trains a similar number of officers on how to fight. With this in mind, it’s easy to see why, in a world full of professional training, it might not be necessary to write stuff down with an emphasis on oral teaching.

The earliest record we have for European swordplay is I.33 which is produced at some time around the 1320’s, the next manual which is Fiore’s treatise (The Flower of Battle) dates 1404. During this time there are various factors which contribute to the increasing literacy of Martial Arts. The increase of literacy in Europe in the Late Medieval Period coincided with a greater stride to distribute written literature.[1] This may coincide with the economics caused by the Black Death, which is said to have wiped out an estimated 45-60% of the European population[2]. The death toll, which in some places such as Italy amounted to 75-80%,[3] meant a loss in a large portion of the population and therefore the necessary knowledge that comes with Martial Arts. For many, that also meant the preservation of certain Martial forms which were falling out of popularity or were no longer used. Mair (1517-1579) illustrates this in his treatises, stating the reconstruction of Martial Arts which no longer existed; therefore the creation of treatises come into play when orally passed information can no longer be taken for granted. From these prospects, one theme links in conjunction with all these factors being the commonality of passed down information, both due to illiteracy and because it was common knowledge to the people living at this time. Therefore, it was not necessary to note down information that was taken for granted. It is therefore understandable as a common skill for the illiterate.

For the Roman Empire in the Medieval Period, it seems that for a lineage of professional military institutions, it would be un-necessary to write down any instructions on how to fight if it’s ingrained in an oral tradition and this relates today; the US Marines or the Army don’t need to write any technical manuals on how to fire and maneuver with a weapon because the institutions teaching it are very much alive. However, this is inconsistent with Roman-Culture. Indeed the Romans even in the “Dark Ages” displayed a literate population, though small, that was larger in proportion to other European Kingdoms and Empires until the 13th and 14th Centuries, especially with a constant time-frame of capable and well-educated officers, scholars, clergy and bureaucrats.[4] When seeing Western European cases being compared to the Roman ones it becomes an issue of consistency. Roman literary culture survived and took form as it did in Antiquity, with a moral and classical literature basis that formed an insular culture of lineage writing. We know because there are surviving manuscripts that cover from medicine to cooking, so why not combat? The Caliphs of Bagdad made a policy of getting manuscripts of knowledge from the Romans as negotiating and concession points in times of peace so there is a value on recorded and written literature as a point of cultural standing. If anything, Roman literary style changed little and we know what wasn’t lost, due to being destroyed or dimply degrading, as kept both by the East and, at times, the West. For example, our knowledge of Classical educated Latin (and it’s pronunciation) survives in 18 volumes of works on practical usage of Latin, such as Comenius’ ‘Vestibulum’ and Orvis Picus, the main summaries for these can be found in works such as W.Sidney Allen’s Vox Latina and Bennet’s work The Latin Language: A Historical Outline of its Sounds, Inflections and Syntax. In all things, the Romans were obsessed with introspectively discussing and noting down their works and more importantly the methodology of those works, as a way of emulating the Hellenic fashion and displaying their definition of what encompassed Culture and civilisation.

The thing is we do have evidence that Roman Martial Arts existed and were documented. The Oxyrhynchus Papyrus is a fragmentary 2nd Century AD Greek Wrestling manual that existed at the time of Roman Rule in Egypt, well after the fall of the Ptolemaic Dynasty. This emphasises a lineage and tradition of wrestling that was adopted by Roman institutions and encouraged; something which would have continued well after the Justinian Period and coincided with Roman Civic activities on Religious festivals. Other works are mentioned however are either lost or no longer exist. Military works were probably passed down but at some point were lost. For example, Pliny the Elder states he wrote a manual on the use of the javelin and mentions that persons engaged in other contests of quoiting, running, leaping, wrestling and boxing. When quoting the javelin, he states “Those who use the javelin are well aware how the horse, by its exertions and the supple movements of its body, aids the rider in any difficulty he may have in throwing his weapon”.[5] This indicates Pliny’s firm understanding of the biomechanics linked to the Javelin by connection between rider and horse; the issue is a lack of technical detail that exists in the Javalin manual that no longer exists. Others such as Julius Caesar are also said to have patrician families to train his best gladiators, which indicate certain families promoted their own style of Martial Arts that may have been well documented.[6] These indicate a complex and diverse mix of Martial Arts that existed in Antiquity and most likely were inherited by the Eastern Romans after centuries.

The nature of dueling in the Roman/Eastern Roman world

The context of duelling takes multiple dimension in the Roman and later Eastern Roman world.  As will be discussed, this covers a wide period that is both vast and dynamic.

The idea of duelling judicially would have been an absurdity to Roman citizens who, by the “Byzantine” era, were all ingrained in a civic/political system. There was a clear divide between the civilian and military sphere during the Empire. Even beforehand when citizens were conscripted to serve the Republic, and later when the rural populace were conscripted in times of emergencies, there is always the distinction that combat did not take a legal dimension. This was ideally linked to the idea of the Politeia, the idea of a civic community where polity was the embodiment of the people’s will. In other words, it took the form of the “Republic” in the classical sense. An Emperor or King could be a “Republican Emperor/King” if they were ones to embody the living community, and as a result society would operate via a social contract. Cicero wrote similar ideals in his work Res Publica and emphasises the higher obligations of the person, in comparison with the community and the application of stoic thought by applying law to all people at all times.[7] In many ways, the ideal behind civic and political identity was Roseau-like and indeed, Roseau was heavily inspired by this ideal that had been evident in Antiquity. In the 6th Century on the frontier with Persia, Roman troops mutiny in north-eastern Anatolia. The priest of the city the soldiers were stationed in appealed to their faith in God but when not listened to, he asked them instead to appeal to their politeia and was successful in doing so.[8] This illustrated a clear identity when it came to civic/political identity, one which differed to a military one. The political and civilian framework, supported by an inherited legal system, satiated the need for determining legal matters via duelling. What is clear is with the exception of duelling for entertainment in accordance to Roman law, judicial duels were alien and would not have been experienced by inhabitants of the Empire throughout its lifetime.

So, it’s evident to conclude that the Romans didn’t duel judicially, instead leaving it to social/civic functions and military ones. The only exception is Judicial dueling which did take form in the Roman Empire from the the 1st to 4th Centuries AD in the form of Gladiatorial fighting however firstly, the premise of this was for entertainment and secondly, this had declined and then was finally stopped under Theodosius. After all, like their Hellenic predecessors in events such as the Olympics, the Romans and Eastern Romans would have engaged in Martial Arts as a social function in conjunction with preparing for war. It is clear that these continued on, well into the existence of the Medieval Roman Empire who inherited these Martial Institutions. At the Battle of Dara in 530, one of the personal assistants of Bouzes, one of Justinian’s Generals,  duelled two Persian champions and succeeded due to his practice in the wrestling school.[9] In the Empire, Pammachon, a modification of Pankration that was a form of no-holds barred fighting, survived. According to Court Historians, Basil is said to have won a wrestling match against a boastful Bulgar in the 9th Century.[10] There is a continuity of theme that illustrates dueling was seen as the norm in military conflicts in the Roman World, or at least on campaign where it was expected such Martial Arts would be used. Such use could serve practical functions. Skylitzes narrates that the Emperor John I Tzimiskes proposed to Sviatoslav I of Kiev to decide the outcome of their battle in single combat; arguing that the death of one man would settle their dispute.[11] Though having some classical overtones, this demonstrated that, contrary to the West, dueling were not a part of a Chivalric culture but instead served a military or social role.

Even after the Battle of Manzikert and the loss of a large pool of manpower resulting from civil wars and military setbacks, Emperors such as Manual I seems to have adopted Western customs such as dueling in the Western sense (for honour, social standing), which was displayed in the Hippodrome, and jousting; even participating in jousting himself due to his enthusiasm.[12] However, even in this sense, the Eastern Romans were reluctant to duel in the context of retaining one’s social standing. Alexios by the time of the Crusades, was well aware of the attitudes of Western Knights and when challenged to single combat by one of them ‘seeking adventures’, was quick to avoid confrontation and not adopt their chivalric practices.[13] Indeed, duels stayed in the confines of military campaigns. For example, in 1139 in a battle between the Eastern Roman army and the Turkish Danishmedids around Neokaisareia, a Eastern Roman Emperor requesting his nephew John to hand his horse over to a distinguished Italian Knight. In this case, John did not like the order and instead challenged the Knight to single combat.[14] Though judicial in nature, over possession of the horse, we do not know if this was chivalric in nature; though it does point to some Western influence in the Eastern Roman Army but is only evident in this sense within the nobility. This becomes an trend which shows a mixture, somewhat, of influence/admiration and integration of customs from the mercenary Tagmatas that served the Emperor. The case of John shows a hurting of John’s pride. Nevertheless John’s case is a unique one that may have had more to do with rivalry that illustrated tension between the Eastern Romans and Crusaders. In other cases, duelling is both non-personal on the battlefield. According to the Niketas Choniates chronicles, the Eastern Roman Army was besieging the Cicilian fortress of Baka. Constantine, an Armenian nobleman who was inside the stronghold, insulted John’s wife with obscenities.[15] Moreover he challenged  any Eastern Roman troops to a duel. After hearing this abuse, John ordered his generals to find an opponent for Constantine among his soldiers. After a duel with swords, Constantine was slain with no real change in the siege. This also demonstrated the use of duelling that was still limited to a military environment and despite the custom of social duelling in Cilicia (as a result of the First Crusade), in this case a soldier was chosen to duel who was presented with gifts afterwards, rather than John fighting himself.[16] It implies that whereas Western practices had certainly impressed the Eastern Romans, duelling in the Western sense was not adopted and this suggest interaction between the Eastern Romans and Western Mercenaries was limited. For the majority of Eastern Romans, dueling was still a matter entirely settled on the battlefield.

Roman Treatises

Duelling was expected to be commonplace in some circumstances, contrary to the belief that the Romans did not partake in single combat. However, this does provide the dilemma of availability, particularly in the realm of usage. A large number of Roman manual on strategic matters exist, which go into careful detail, however a minuscule amount provides some idea of how a Roman soldier may have technically fought at any one time. Put simply, why are there treatises for strategic but not individual combat? For this, other examples would need to be looked at which provide a basic theme towards the end of the Roman Empire in antiquity.

Marcus Tullius Cicero was the epitome of what embodied the ideal Roman politician. In his life (from 106 B.C to 43 B.C) he was a Roman philosopher, statesman, lawyer, orator, political theorist, consul and constitutionalist. He came from a wealthy municipal family of the equestrian order and is of the greatest orators and prose stylists in Roman history. With this in mind, it is surprising to find that a large number of his works exist, both on letter writing and philosophy. For many scholars in the Early Middle Ages, his works was considered the master of Latin prose as well as the epitome of articulating oneself in writing. Augustine of Hippo credited Cicero’s lost Hortenius for his eventual conversion to Christianity in his work Confession and was greatly admired by Early Church theologians, especially on natural law and innate rights. His works, and thus information on the Late Republican Period, have been preserved is also due to the use of his work in letter writing, which was used as a framework to correspond in the Medieval Period and later was manifested further in the Renaissance with the re-emergence of Classical works.[17] It is for this reason that after the fall of the Roman Empire, Cicero’s works were deemed “rightful pagan” and therefore could correspond to Christian theology and doctrine. For the clergy, stateman and aristocracy, Cicero works found a practical use which provides the basis for letter writing today.

In the Eastern Roman World, the idea of adopting something because it was useful was the norm from Antiquity and the Pagan past and by this time, was probably the norm in circulated literature. This differs from the West due to a higher number of literature that may have survived and even have passed on to other empires. For example, many of the Mamluk Manuals, such as the 1470 one The Treasure that Combines All Things, displays Greco-Roman influence however it’s a bit ambigious on how so. This could vary from writing style (being Aristotelian) to actual techniques. The Treatise mentions the Syrian Guard to do with the lance where the user crouches it under his armpit. The interesting thing is it mentions the origin as being specifically Rum, meaning Roman, showing technical and general influences. The issue is how much is influenced. Despite having a large number of mercenaries employed, the Romans were often stubborn, insular and stubborn when it came to tradition and maintaining convention. So some aspects may have been adapted from the Arab and Turkic worlds, but a lot of it probably grew organically. After all, the Roman world had been in a continuous war with the Arabs and Bulgars for 300 years so some stuff was going to rub off but de-population and forcibly moving people’s meant that was less likely.


In the atmosphere of lacked treatises and the evidence we have, it is easy for one to conclude that this implies a simplistic Martial Art; applied only to the battlefield. However, the Romans amalgamated and adopted a means in which to duel and engage in individual combat. The difference to Western Europe is a matter of context. Though dueling in Western Europe (depending on the location) was used as a legal and social mechanism to solve disputes, such mechanisms was alien to the Romans. Though Gladiatorial fighting can be seen as a means of judicial dueling based on the framework of Roman common law, in other contexts dueling was seen as acceptable practice only in the form of both sporting (as with Basil I and wrestling) or more importantly as a military application. To do so was to serve a function of both undermining the enemy’s morale and also as a way of preventing bloodshed. Even with the influence of Western Europe during the 11th Century and the Crusades, duelling still stayed as an entirely military affair. Outside of the battlefield, Roman law satiated any disputes through the Hellenistic tradition of rhetoric and types of laws; which also was linked to the Greco-Roman political and civilian idea of the politeia which created a firm divide between civilian and military affairs. Nevertheless, Martial Arts and duelling served a function in the Roman world that was both dynamic and sophisticated, as well as institutional, and any knowledge  of how this played out is unavailable due to a lack primary source material existing anymore. As a result, it will be the work of experimental archaeologist who will attempt to reconstruct Roman Martial Arts based on the evidence we have.



[1] Lucien Febvre and Martin, Henri-Jean, The Coming of the Book: The Impact of Printing 1450–1800 (Verso: London, 1997).

[2] Ole J. Benedictow, ‘The Black Death: The Greatest Catastrophe Ever’, History Today Volume 55 Issue (3 March 2005).

[3] Philip Daileader, The Late Middle Ages, (The Great Courses: Washington DC, 2007).

[4] N.G. Wilson, Scholars of Byzantium, (Medieval Academy of America: Cambridge USA, 2013), pp. 1-2.

[5] Delphi Complete Works of Pliny the Eldar, (Delphi Classics: UK, 2015), Chapter 65.

[6] Henrik Mouritsen, Plebs and Politics in the Late Roman Republic ( Cambridge University: Cambridge, 2007) p. 97

[7] Andrew Lintott, Cicero as Evidence: A Historian’s Companion (New York: Oxford university Press, 2008), p. 233.

[8] Anthony Kaldellis, The Byzantine Republic: People and Power in New Rome (Harvard University Press: Harvard, 2015).

[9] Procopius, History of the Wars, Ed Lillington-Martin , 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2013  Book 1, Chapter 13.

[10] Michael B. Poliakoff, “Wrestling, Freestyle” from Encyclopedia of World Sport: From Ancient Times to the Present, eds. David Levinson and Karen Christensen (Santa Barbara Inc, 1996), Vol. 3, p. 1193.

[11] John Skylitzes, John Skylitzes: A Synopsis of Byzantine History, 811-1057: Translation and Notes, Ed John Wortley (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2010) pp. 307-308.

[12] Constantine Paparrigopoulos, History of the Greek Nation, Db, 121

[13] Alex Rodriguez Suarez, The Western presence in the Eastern Roman Empire during the reigns of Alexios I and John II Komnenos (1081-1143), (King’s College: London, 2014) p. 233.

[14] Ibid, p. 237.

[15] Niketas Choniates, O City of Byzantium: Annuals of Niketas Choniates. Ed, Harry J. Magoulias (Wayne State University Press, Detroit),  pp. 22-25.

[16] Alex Rodriguez Suarez, p. 234.

[17] Albert Charles Hamilton, The Spencer Encyclopedia (University of Toronto Press: London, 1990), p. 434



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